Buenos Aires is a book city. Many of the continent’s most influential writers have at some stage had a porteño post code. Indeed, the work of great writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and José Hernández have all been shaped by the passion of the city’s thriving literary contingent. Fast forward to 2012 and there is a burgeoning literary movement emerging in the capital once more – albeit this time hidden down amongst the shelves of a quaint San Telmo bookstore.
Founded by Geoffrey, from the US, and his wife Josefina, from Salta, Walrus Books has become something of a local institution. It is a mecca for ex-pats, tourists, and Argentines alike who all pilgrimage down the cobbled streets of San Telmo in search of their next English language read. But Walrus Books is more than just a bookshop these days; turn the page and it has plenty more to offer. The store has become a welcoming backdrop for original literary discourse and a meeting place for the sort of booklovers that momentarily close their eyes and sigh deeply as they enter it.
Back in March 2012 and under the watchful eye of 4,000 used, new, and hard-to-find titles from the shop’s impressive catalogue, Walrus Courses began. These literature and writing courses are the brainchild of writer and infectiously passionate ex-pat Rachel Engelman, who has studied fiction under Pulitzer Prize winning author, Steven Millhauser. So, how did they come about? After coming into contact with many young people in Buenos Aires who treated reading as a romance rather than a hobby, the Los Angeles native approached Geoffrey at the Walrus with the idea of running a few courses and they have not looked back since. “It’s something fundamentally missing from BA culture and we thought it would be a great thing for a good many people. Literature and Writing classes given in English, not just for foreigners, but for Argentines. For everyone, really,” commented Engelman.
The courses that have been run to-date have covered an eclectic range of subjects approaching literature from a mixture of angles. Over the past few months ‘The Modern American short story’, ‘The J.D. Salinger Seminar’, ‘The Short Story Course’, ‘The Art Of Fiction: A Course In Reading And Writing’, and the ‘Creative Writing Workshop’, have all been the focus of rigorous debate amongst their participants. Whether a first timer or a seasoned literary scholar, Walrus Courses offer an environment within which expression is encouraged and everyone has room to speak. The class size is limited too, which keeps it intimate and personal.
Now entering their third wave, the demographic is expanding – “there are the loquacious Argentines with remarkable vocabulary and poetic souls – all writing in English. Then there are the brasileros learning about Ginsberg and the British reading Raymond Carver and the Argentines falling over themselves for Flannery O’Connor,” Engelman added.
The upcoming courses, which are scheduled to start in September and run until late October, include ‘The Paris Writers’ a look at the short stories of the great writers of ‘The Lost Generation’ in 1920s Paris; ‘California Writers vs. New York Writers’ comparing notable authors from both shores and considering how particular settings inspire particular forms of art; and ‘Creative Writing’, an introduction to fiction writing, which will include narrative assignments designed to hone narrative skills and develop participants’ creative senses. And with interest growing fast, there are plans to open an institute in Palermo Soho with more class variety. But fear not, the evening courses at their spiritual home of the Walrus will remain a mainstay.
It is not just all about the subject material, however. “The courses offer the chance for foreigners to get to know locals on an intimate (and authentic) level,” states Engelman. But diversity does not come just in the form of nationality; previous students have been of all ages and have come from a wide range of backgrounds. There are not only the classic, young literature students, but also economists, film students, translators, salesmen, journalists, and stay at home mothers who have taken courses to-date. It is people from all across the globe meeting under one roof to talk about something they love with a passion. After all as their founder reminds us, these are not lecture courses – “they are conversations in which the classes take on the intimacy of a group of very opinionated friends in a living room”. Except this living room just so happens to have Borges, Cortazar, Hernández and co. looking down on you and hanging off your every word. Unlike the books which encircle them, however, none of the ideas being presented and discussed are second-hand.